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  • 2001-05 Emerald Outposts
    by Sara Shoemaker

    The Maldives sit like pristine jewels in the middle of the Indian Ocean, far from any other country or land mass. This is the wild west of diving—small oases of coral that stretch over a horizon of blue.

    Diving here takes on three distinct forms, all of which revolve around the term atoll. Used frequently to describe island groups across the tropical Pacific, atoll is actually a Maldivian word describing the idyllic ring-like coral islands that make up the Maldives 1,000-island group. Covering 450 miles from north to south, the atolls range in size from tiny spits of sand to third largest in the world.

    The first form of diving takes place in the kandu, or channels, between islands where the tide flows in and out of lagoons. These usually have strong current and are good places to see bigger creatures. Diving on the maa kandu, or the outer area of the atoll, features sloping reefs and greater depth. Or, divers can explore the thila, the areas inside the atoll lagoons, generally with much milder currents.

    This system of atolls, reefs and channels is at the mercy of the tides, which make for strong currents and ample opportunities for drift dives. (Divers are advised to use a safety sausage and other surface signaling equipment at all times.) Visibility depends on tides and seasons and differences can be dramatic. The southwestern monsoon creates plankton blooms (typically on the eastern side of the atolls) that make the water a bit soupy from April to October, but with the advantage of pelagics coming in to feed on the nutrient-rich waters. Manta Rays and Whale Sharks are frequent visitors during this time. In November, the monsoon switches from southwestern to northeastern, the visibility improves, and the pelagics move to the western side of the atolls.
    I saw sharks and turtles on almost every dive. And, the thilas just off the Baa Atoll are a favorite spot for feeding Manta Rays. There are also eagle rays and stingrays for additional visual excitement.

    The turtle population is healthy, too. Incidentally, the fee for laundry service at the Soneva Resort goes to the protection of sea turtles.
    The one thing to be sure of is that after making the effort to get to
    the Maldives, you should stay as long
    as possible. Time in paradise goes quickly.

    Special thanks to Banyan Tree Resort, Four Seasons Resort, Singapore Airlines and Soneva Fushi for accommodations and diving.

    The Maldives are not the easiest place in the world to get to, which is again one of the reasons it is so unspoiled. From the West Coast of the U.S., fly to Singapore with the carrier of your choice, then Singapore Airlines to Malé, the capital of the Maldives. Via Europe or the Middle East there are a few more options. When you arrive into the Maldives by air you arrive on the airport island. There is an airport hotel scheduled to open to accommodate guests overnight en route to other atolls.

    BEST TIME TO VISIT:
    The climate of Maldives is warm year-round and determined by the monsoons. However, being on the equator, the monsoons are mild and not as defined as in neighboring countries. Of the two monsoons, the southwest monsoon from May to October brings some rain and wind. The northeast monsoon from November to April is the dry season with very little wind.

    TOPSIDE CLIMATE:
    Temperatures are constant throughout the year, usually 85°F.

    WATER TEMPERATURE:
    Ranges from 82 to 86°F.

    EXCHANGE RATE:
    1.00 (USD) = 11.77 MVR (Maldives Rufiyaa)

    TIME DIFFERENCE:
    Eastern Standard Time plus 10 hours.

    CONTACTS:
    Maldives Tourism Promotion Board (011) 960-323228 www.visitmaldives.com • Singapore Airlines (800) 742-3333 • AAA Hotels & Resorts (011) 960-316131 www.aaatravel-maldives.com • Banyan Tree Maldives Vabinfaru (Vabinfaru, North Malé Atoll) (011) 960-443147
    e-mail: room-div@banyantree.com.mv • Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa (800) 545-4000 www.fourseasons.com • Hulhule Island Hotel, Male (011) 960-330888 email: sales@hih.com.mv • Island Dreams Travel (800) 346-6116 www.divetrip.com • Maldives Scuba Tours (011) 44-1449-780220 e-mail: info@mst.keme.co.uk • Ocean Travel & Tours (011) 960-320435 www.ocean.com.mv • Sea N Sea Pvt. Ltd. (011) 960-325634 www.manthiri.com • Seafari Adventures S.R.I. (011) 39-039-329338 www.seafariadven
    tures.com • Soneva Fushi Island, Baa Atoll (011) 960-230-304/5 www.soneva-pavilion.com.